An Industry Viewpoint: Social Media Services

Although I want to map out all the social media services companies, it’s too early to take on such a herculean task –there are too many players and many of them will merge or go away as the recession water recede.

Often, people ask me what the services market is going to look like in a few years, and here’s my take: after some consolidation, it will probably look a lot like other digital agencies exist like search, email, advertising, or interactive –despite the approach is often radically different (and sometimes the exact same).

Three Categories of Service Offerings
We will be able to bucket the services groups into three main categories:

1) Large agencies that are now offering social media services, but in addition to other core services like interactive, PR, search, or strategy (like Organic, Razorfish, Ogilvy, Edelman)
2) Pure play Social Media Shops (like Conversation Group, Federated Media, Chris Brogan’s group, and to some degree, Shift communications)
3) A variety of personal consultants that offer social media services.

A Crowded Space
For the Community Platform wave, we narrowed down to 9 vendors out of over 100, I would expect for this market of services to be in the thousands. Maybe tens of thousands in a few years. Mapping them out has been a task, Charlene started with a wiki with five categories (I think I could collapse into my three), but maintaining it will be a beast.

Packaged Offerings Start to Emerge
Perhaps rather than watch all the different players emerge, it may be more fruitful to monitor the type of offerings, the ever vocal Derek Showerman launched Social Media Services Group that is a spin off from several groups offers a menu of services, including some suggested packages including analytics packages. This is one of the first menus I’ve seen that offers both À la carte and family meals, and I expect to see more.

Specialization in a Nascent Market
While you could easily apply the traditional filter of verticals like tech, healthcare or finance, we’re already seeing specialization in social media services, some breakdown by vertical community folks (Forum One, Ant’s eye view) vs Web Video (Variety of agencies) vs Sponsored Conversations (Federated Media, Edelman). Even within the growing community market there’s specialists that could focus in on strategy, kick starting, community management, analytics, or research.

Impacts of the Recession
I currently see an influx of social media consultants, in part due to the recession, and secondly due to personal usage being translated to a market offering. I expect this third band of individual consultants to decrease as we move out of the recession and folks move on to other careers (perhaps one that’s not saturated). It’s important to not confuse personal passions for a new medium vs professional expertise –see next bullet.

Considerations before hiring
If I was asked “how do you find the right consultant” I almost always say to look at track record. In this space, experience matters a great deal, as they’ve had to experiment with new media that doesn’t fit well with traditional methods. The key thing when finding social media services is to not just to look for successful deployments, but also find out about what they’ve done wrong. If they haven’t messed up something, their not pushing the edge hard enough, and may not do that for you, as their client. Messing up is one thing, but as a result, find out what the lessons learned were, I think that’s most important. Some may say that this is such a young market, how can you gauge experience? If you look closely, there are some practitioners that have been doing this for 5 years or longer. Similarly, experience shouldn’t be limited to social media alone, did they successfully latch on to other movements in digital before the world of blogs and tweets?

Leave comment: what criteria do you look for?
I could list out a whole series of bullets of what to look for and what not to, but that’s been done before. So let me turn it over to you, what criteria are you seeking when hiring social media services? Like this space, I expect –and hope– to see a wide range of answers.

Written from a hotel in friendly Minneapolis, 530am.